Joe Biden Could Decriminalize Weed in 2021. Legalizing It Is a Different Story.

Joe Biden has promised time and time again to be a president for all Americans. All of them. One more time for the cheap seats: all of them. As it happens, nearly all Americans (91 percent of them, to be precise; the other 9 percent likely have a stick so far up their asses they think it’s touching God) believe marijuana ought to be legalized for medical use at the very least. In 2020, the country hit an all-time high of people who want the drug completely legalized—68 percent, according to Gallup. And yet, as President Biden redid the Oval Office, federally speaking, marijuana remains incredibly illegal, a Schedule I drug with “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.”

That’s about as outdated a view as belief in a flattened earth.

The best that can be said about Trump’s stance on marijuana is that he didn’t have the bandwidth to freely spray his punitive hatred across marijuana policy; his administration set it back some but mostly ignored it. Now, reform will be a goal, if not a priority at the tip-top of Biden’s extensive to-do list. As we head into four years of national optimism—weird!—and progressive legislative reform—who’d have thought!—this is where cannabis legalization efforts stand under Biden.

What is Biden’s stance on legal weed?

You wouldn’t call Biden “gung-ho” about weed. The man is a teetotaler who’s likely never touched the stuff (unlike a young Barack Obama). Through most of public-facing life, Biden hadn’t been enthusiastic about cannabis legalization—or showed even lukewarm acceptance. He was anti. However, as with many of Biden’s policy positions poked to the left by more liberal contenders, the latest developments are more promising.

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Last February, Politico reported that Biden had come around enough to admit, “I think it is at the point where it has to be, basically, legalized,” and that he did not consider it “a gateway drug.” However, his campaign promises were hardly as progressive of other Democrats, calling for decriminalization instead of legalization, as well as removing marijuana from the Schedule I list, expunging some drug-related criminal records, and blocking federal interference in states with legalized weed. That said, it’s an improvement on any of the previous 45 presidents.

Are you right to be perplexed, borderline pissed off, that Biden hasn’t committed to more? Sure you are. Drug enforcement, especially that concerned with kinda-lame drugs like marijuana in minority communities, is intrinsically tied into over-policing. Biden has committed himself to criminal justice for Black and brown people. Decriminalizing weed doesn’t prevent Black and brown people from being stuck with fines, targeted by police. And while the legal weed industry is exploding in some states, in others, they’re blocked from profiting off it, even though they were locked up at radically disproportional rates for decades because of it. For the record, that industry is very white and VC-centric right now. That’s not great.

Will weed be legalized under Biden? Maybe.

Last year, the Atlantic reported that Biden wouldn’t do more than he’d already promised on the marijuana front until he was dealt some cold, hard, convincing science on its health effects—more than most of the promising-but-inconclusive science we’re working with now. That’ll be a long time coming. But Biden is also harnessed to a Democratic-majority Congress that’s keen on changing federal law. In December, the House passed a major marijuana decriminalization bill, called the MORE Act and sponsored by now-Veep Kamala Harris, that would’ve been doomed in the Republican Senate. Thanks to Stacey Abrams and Georgia’s voters, the Senate outlook is glittery in 2021, with Biden having little to do with it beyond accompanying such legislation into law.

Besides, Democrats (and a few Republicans) in both chambers have been talking a big game about marijuana reform for years. The means may not be clear yet, but the ambition is there.

democratic presidential candidates debate in charleston ahead of sc primary

A supporter of cannabis legalization demonstrates outside of the Democratic presidential debate on February 25, 2020 in Charleston, South Carolina.

Drew AngererGetty Images

At the risk of reading too much into tea leaves, marijuana business publications and nonprofits aimed at marijuana reform have optimistically highlighted that Biden is appointing certain folks to new roles—in the Department of Health, the Justice Department, and the DNC—who’d likely favor reform. As attorneys general, Jeff Session and William Barr were predictably bad for such progress. Biden’s pick Merrick Garland isn’t exactly a revolutionary, but so far, he hasn’t been openly antagonistic, so that’s something.

In short, marijuana will almost certainly be decriminalized under a Democratic-controlled Congress and a Biden presidency. What remains uncertain is just how far legislation would go to address racial disparities and make reparations to communities unfairly punished by the last decades of our country’s so-called War on Drugs. Legalization is way the hell up in the air.

The cannabis industry has made headway, federal inaction be damned.

Look to the states for a different display of what all (or most) Americans want to legally put into their bodies. As of early 2021, 35 states plus the District of Columbia allow medical marijuana use. Of those states, 15 have made it legal for recreational use, too. In the last election alone, New Jersey, South Dakota, Montana, and Arizona went green. New York is salivating over legalization this year, in part because tax revenue from cannabis sales could help its economy rebound after the pandemic finally loosens its grasp.

Still, prisoners in on nonviolent drug offenses remain imprisoned. State legalization laws don’t right past wrongs unless heavily influenced by advocates. The legal industry is uncomfortably white. Among the weed-smoking, -vaping, -eating, -toking, -drinking public, conversations about cannabis have to be entrenched in social justice so they can waft up into politics.

You’ve got all of this to process, just in time to wrap your mind around legal psychedelics.

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